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November 02, 2009

La Mal Francaise

Sacre bleu! If only les Americans tres stupides could more closely emulate our betters across the pond...

At France Telecom, 25 employees have killed themselves in the last two years. It isn't known how many cases were in response to job strains, partly because it is difficult to determine a suicide's complex causes. But occasionally victims leave behind a note blaming their company.

"I couldn't take it anymore . . . spending hours in front of the screen like a real mechanical puppet. . . . If only my gesture could serve some purpose," a France Telecom technician identified only as Jean-Michel wrote before he threw himself in front of a train in July 2008. He was 53 and married with three children.

With the France Telecom suicides as a backdrop, President Nicolas Sarkozy recently said he wanted the world to change its production-obsessed measure of national wealth.

In September, he argued for a new international economic indicator of wealth based less on gross domestic product and more on "well-being" cultivated through leisure and social benefits, among others.

Reading this, I thought immediately of that old Sam Kinison skit about the dog psychiatrist. A dog owner brings his pooch to a local shrink. The dog, it seems, has been acting out of late. The doc takes the leash, calmly walks the pooch into the next room and proceeds to beat him about the head and shoulders furiously, all the while screaming, "YOU'RE A DOG, G*&DAMMIT!

A few moments later, the doc comes back out to greet the anxious dog owner. The dog is trotting happily at his side. Instant attitude adjustment.

All through the presidential campaign (and for the next 9 or 10 months), we've heard nothing but how Joe Sixpack from Milwaulkee is desperately unhappy. So much so that only the urgent intervention of the federal government can gently reassemble the shattered pieces of his tortured soul and make the sun come out again in John Edwards' Two Americas. But what if all those social benefits are not the solution, but the problem itself?

One way to assess how Americans feel about the different tax and benefit packages the states offer is by examining internal U.S. migration patterns. Between April 1, 2000, and June 30, 2007, an average of 3,247 more people moved out of California than into it every week, according to the Census Bureau. Over the same period, Texas had a net weekly population increase of 1,544 as a result of people moving in from other states. During these years, more generally, 16 of the 17 states with the lowest tax levels had positive "net internal migration," in the Census Bureau's language, while 14 of the 17 states with the highest taxes had negative net internal migration.

These folks pulling up stakes and driving U-Haul trucks across state lines understand a reality the defenders of the high-benefit/high-tax model must confront: All things being equal, everyone would rather pay low taxes than high ones. The high-benefit/high-tax model can work only if things are demonstrably not equal -- if the public goods purchased by the high taxes far surpass the quality, quantity and impact of those available to people who live in states with low taxes.

Today's public benefits fail that test, as urban scholar Joel Kotkin of NewGeography.com and Chapman University told the Los Angeles Times in March: "Twenty years ago, you could go to Texas, where they had very low taxes, and you would see the difference between there and California. Today, you go to Texas, the roads are no worse, the public schools are not great but are better than or equal to ours, and their universities are good. The bargain between California's government and the middle class is constantly being renegotiated to the disadvantage of the middle class."

These judgments are not based on drive-by sociology. According to a report issued earlier this year by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., Texas students "are, on average, one to two years of learning ahead of California students of the same age," even though per-pupil expenditures on public school students are 12% higher in California. The details of the Census Bureau data show that Texas not only spends its citizens' dollars more effectively than California but emphasizes priorities that are more broadly beneficial. Per capita spending on transportation was 5.9% lower in California, and highway expenditures in particular were 9.5% lower, a discovery both plausible and infuriating to any Los Angeles commuter losing the will to live while sitting in yet another freeway traffic jam.

In what respects, then, does California "excel"? California's state and local government employees were the best compensated in America, according to the Census Bureau data for 2006. And the latest posting on the website of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility shows 9,223 former civil servants and educators receiving pensions worth more than $100,000 a year from California's public retirement funds. The "dues" paid by taxpayers in order to belong to Club California purchase benefits that, increasingly, are enjoyed by the staff instead of the members.

I can't quite shake the feeling that Barack Obama is one hand rolled Gauloise short of a major existentialist crisis. When "...but we have to DO something!!!" becomes the unanswerable justification for across the board restructuring of our economy, it begins to feel as though we're being stampeded down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams rather than led gently by the nose.

That the person doing the herding is a man who changes course more often than Leonardo di Caprio changes supermodels is terrifying:

They are not worried about his policy choices. Their concerns are more fundamental. They are worried about his determination.

These people, who follow the war for a living, who spend their days in military circles both here and in Afghanistan, have no idea if President Obama is committed to this effort. They have no idea if he is willing to stick by his decisions, explain the war to the American people and persevere through good times and bad.

Their first concerns are about Obama the man. They know he is intellectually sophisticated. They know he is capable of processing complicated arguments and weighing nuanced evidence.

But they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree.

Remember when "Stay the Course" was mercilessly ridiculed? Suddenly perseverance begins to look less stubborn than statesmanlike. Confronted with a massive loss of public confidence, can it be that even a 60 or 70% plan faithfully executed might perform better than a vague, constantly changing slogan so insubstantial that not even his supporters are sure which hill they're supposed to die on - or for - today?

At some point we have to stop studying, stop building consensus and gathering information, and move forward. This was Jimmy Carter's weakness as a leader: though by anyone's reckoning he was an intelligent man, he kept getting lost in the weeds.

But I can't help but wonder whether even that's the real problem?

Perhaps it's more basic. Perhaps the malaise we're suffering owes more to the absence of good old fashioned character and conviction - the ability to pick a direction and plod onwards step by step - than it does to over-heated introspection?

If so, we may pause to reflect that in this regard Obama really is a man for our times. For his flaws are our own, outsized. We keep looking around for a hero to rescue us from our own fecklessness.

That we're so easily led by a man who can't even make up his mind ought to give us pause. We have met the enemy and it isn't "them".

It's us.

Our unwillingness to face consequences squarely. Our refusal to do what we all know needs to be done. Perhaps that's why we're so easily led. We've lost the ability to plot our own course. And thus we render ourselves powerless.

Posted by Cassandra at November 2, 2009 06:26 AM

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That we're so easily led by a man who can't even make up his mind ought to give us pause. We have met the enemy and it isn't "them".

It's us.

Well...some of the collective "us", anyway. People are gullible, mostly...

Posted by: camojack at November 3, 2009 01:34 AM

They have no idea if he is willing to stick by his decisions...

Then they haven't been paying attention...

Posted by: BillT at November 3, 2009 07:11 AM

I actually have to agree with this to some extent. I appreciate the gravity of the decisions to be made, but at some point a plan must be chosen and executed. "A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow."

Of course, I think that also applies to the current health care "debate" in Congress... if you have the numbers needed, push it through, quit trying to get buy-in from the Republicans :)

Posted by: MikeH at November 3, 2009 10:00 AM